Feb 18, 2003

My first acquaintance with the idyllic world happened when I was about 10 and feeling, not unusually, bored. Venue this time was in the Bangalore house of my aunt where I was spending the vacation. When asked for something to read, my uncle said he had a lot of those books. Until then, I had never read any of those, and I never minded taking a chance. So I did. I don't remember which one it was, but I didn't quite like it. Probably it was the language, too incomprehensible then. Maybe I didn't quite get the large dollops of slang. I didn't progress beyond a few pages and that was it.

If I had allowed that first impression to linger later in life, it would pretty much have been a big mistake.

I don't know how (this happened many a time: my discovery of Desmond Bagley is in a similar category), but somehow I had a couple of those books myself. I was pretty lucky to have lots of cousins who read a great deal and didn't mind passing on their collections to the younger ones who liked to do so too. A large number of books thus came my way, and probably these ones came through that route too. The back cover featured an actor called Ian Carmichael with a large monocle, and one word leapt out of the description of the book Imbroglio. I read with an open mind, and by the time I had closed The Code of the Woosters, I guess I was part of the legion of fans that loved Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

The other book I had was completely different from the British aristocracy settings that infest (in a nice way, of course) the Blandings or Wooster stories, and nor do is it like the middle-class musings of the Mulliners or Ukridge or Psmith. Set in Greenwich Village, New York, it reflects, in my opinion, the life that Wodehouse led during his successful stay in America while creating musicals, and contains delicate pokes at the then prevalent Prohibition policy among others. The Small Bachelor is very funny, and those fans who complain about a certain fundamental similarity in the plots of some of the other Wodehouse stories will enjoy the zara hatke setting and American slang. Watch out for Mr. Hamilton Beamish in it!

I haven't read enough Wodehouse yet and there's a lot of books that I hope to read in the future. I think I've managed to touch the various flavours of the plots, including some of the Golfing stories of which The Clicking of Cuthbert will be a personal favourite for years to come. I'm not going to say anything about Wodehouse in terms of what a genius he was at his art, because Evelyn Waugh said all that needs to be said ages ago. What interests me is that Wodehouse wasn't apparently the kind that went through a lot of trauma to produce his output, and in a foreword to one of the Wooster stories, he describes how easily it flowed out, probably like treacle from a jar.

Let me pause here to ask one question that I absolutely love and is the kind of question that gives quizzing a good name:

What sauce provides the colour in the special "pick-me-up" drink of Jeeves, valet to Bertie Wooster in the P.G.Wodehouse stories?

Answer: Worcestershire sauce. Now, I spent a lot of time in life not knowing how to pronounce "Worcestershire". Thanks to Wodehouse, I know it is "Woostershire". Those were also the days when I called "Colonel" like it was spelt, Col-O-nel, but we digress.

All this Wodehouse-talk was sparked off by an event at the local British Library which promised a presentation (note this carefully, it acquired greater significance later in the evening), a quiz and most importantly from my view, a screening of some episode of a TV series based on Jeeves & Wooster. Presumably this was from the same series starring Hugh Laurie as the bemused Bertie and Stephen Fry as the dignified Jeeves. Having loved their exploits in Blackadder, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of their act one day.
The "presentation" was underway by the time I got to the venue, with some stuff about Wodehouse's collaborators like the illustrator Ionicus and some basic stuff about some of the characters. It did dwell on Wodehouse's Berlin internment which was a controversial period in his life; his speeches & broadcasts were not well received in a Britain where the war's misery had supplanted the traditional English humour leaving it without a place to call home. The "facilitator" of the BCL evening was a seemingly dapper young man (who shall remain unnamed but will be abbreviated as HMC). The quiz had 10 questions and about 5 people cracked it to make it to the final. Then the fun began (as it usually does in quizzes done by people who haven't really quizzed before, a fair assumption to make considering HMC's attitude).
I may be biased against the slick HMC, but his habit of announcing one minute breaks after every round (of 5 questions) to "let the participants get their breath back" was getting a bit on everyone's nerves. It lead me to another paraphrased observation, using the bit about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way. Every good quiz is probably like every other good quiz, but every bad quiz is usually bad in its own way. Which is good for those who fall off their chairs in laughter, and prevents quizzing from becoming too serious. HMC brought some of the common irritants to the party: passing with the 10/5 system, mixing very easy questions with incredibly tough ones while continuing to exhort all to keep trying even if the question was the "either-you-know-it-or-you-don't" kind and not giving out answers, especially for the elims. But he also had his own unique quirk: after almost every question, he would say with childish glee: "It was there in the presentation". Oh shoot! The syllabus was being paraded all the time. That probably explains my peeves: I didn't try memorising the slides. And if I was a pal of HMC, I might correct him of his notion that you can spell "junior" as "Juniour" everywhere, but on the evidence presented so far, I am not likely to be his pal. The mandatory fox paws came about with HMC (I still can't believe I heard this) saying: "... Yes, fish is good for the brain, especially for the red blood corpuscles...". He was quick to correct it to "grey cells", but I am prepared to swear I heard him say RBCs instead of GCs. Too much...
I signed a muster that I thought merely stood for what we call presentii, but it turned out to be a call up for a Wodehouse club: the supposed aims being to indulge in readings and screenings. When the proposition also included the performance of plays and the fact that HMC was the likely Prometheus who would lead the charge, I started to feel a little uneasy. But the last straw came from the fact that there was no screening that day! There was no explanation offered too, with HMC (having gracefully accepted a presentation from the BCL chaps, no doubt for his "presentation") announcing a huddle for the prospective club members in one corner and that the others could leave summarily, for it was all over. Like the 2003 Verve quiz, there was a veil of secrecy surrounding the events. Though I had been tricked into parting with my phone number on the muster, I took to my heels promptly before I could be marked down for a future "Gussie Fink-Nottle a.k.a Mephistopheles at the party" role.

Though my contribution to the popularisation of the Wodehouse canon seems to be rather circumscribed right now, I promise to atleast acquaint myself with the ones that I haven't had the pleasure of reading. The same about my Pu La mp3s. I don't know if a morning listening to the mp3s and an evening of Wodehouse would leave my funny bones exhausted, but it is a happy thought. I've always felt a twinge of envy for the characters in Wodehouse stories, especially people like Bertie Wooster, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood and Anatole: their lives are not threatened by the dire side of life, and they can be as cool as some cucumbers as Anatole would say. An enviable life with them rolling in the money and having faithfuls like Jeeves bailing them out when it gets hot under the collar. And the best life of them all? Without a doubt, that of the Empress of Blandings. All it takes the royal sow to be contented is a trough full of the best pig-food and her favourite keeper going Pig-hoooo-eey!. Sheer bliss...

The reassuring thing about most Wodehouse stories is that the ending is pretty predictable. So the fun is in seeing how the characters, or rather how Wodehouse extricates them from the mess in which he gets them in the early parts of the story. Much like an exciting sporting match in which the awful beginning and the then unlikely spectacular end are known. The journey of joining the dots between those two points is as fascinating as the conclusion. The service of such men to mankind is immeasurable.

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